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Preaching controversial issues without dividing the church

Illustration by Gary Locke.
Illustration by Gary Locke.

Controversial issues need God’s light, not Hollywood or political spin. Unfortunately, many church leaders refrain from tackling complex moral issues because they have the potential to divide the congregation. However, we are called to be fearless disciples. Many visitors and especially younger generations are looking for acceptance, not a one-minded mentality that is blind to important issues. Let us shine a light on all of God’s creation, even if it makes a few people squirm.

With God’s wisdom and guidance, controversial teachings can actually draw people into your church. For this to happen, you must teach both sides, dialogue with others and let people reach their own conclusions. Encourage them to use Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when making ethical conclusions. People will be much more interested in hearing what you have to say if this is your approach.

Here are a few more detailed pointers:

Remember that Christians can be on all sides of the issue.
Do not assume that too many people in your congregation hold the same view. An issue is controversial precisely because there are all types of thinking. Reasonable and committed Christians can make a case for every side of any issue.

Be as informed as possible about all sides of the issue.
Seek the best information on each side. It may be difficult, but try to research the most unbiased and objective information. Talk to the most passionate proponents of various positions. The Internet is an invaluable tool for finding such proponents. On the most controversial issues, aim to be among the best-informed persons in your congregation. 

These sermons require more preparation time than do ordinary sermons. It is likely that you will devote 20 hours or more to reading and interviewing experts on the subject before beginning to write your message.

Understand why people are on different sides of the controversy. 
This will help you formulate your own views more clearly and will play a key role in earning the congregation’s trust. It may be a good idea to start with the position that is least like your own. Present it as persuasively as possible. Then, follow with the position closest to your own and strive to present it just as persuasively.

Members who disagree with your conclusion will thank you for presenting their position in a stronger way than they could have articulated it. Build this type of respect with your congregation and they will learn that it’s OK to disagree with each other. They will feel more comfortable attending and inviting the community into worship.

Be open to the idea that your conclusions may be faulty.
Be open to the possibility that God will move you to a different place. In study, prayer and reflection, be open to the possibility of changing your mind. As you are willing to consider such a move, so will your congregation be willing to reconsider their own views.

When I preached on the death penalty several years ago, my views actually changed as a result of my study. My preconceived ideas on several controversial issues gave way to new conclusions as a result of my study of these topics. When a pastor can stand in the pulpit and say, “I have really struggled this week studying this issue. I began my study with one opinion, and partway through, as a result of my reading, prayer and reflection, my views changed,” the congregation will be all ears to hear what the pastor has to say.

Demonstrate humility, respect, kindness and love.
This is especially relevant when you are revealing your conclusions. You may say something like, “Having wrestled with both sides of this issue, I would like to share my conclusions. I am not suggesting that mine is the only position a Christian could hold, nor do I feel any less love for those who disagree. Please know that you are welcome to disagree. But as I have reflected on this issue in the light of Scripture, tradition, experience and reason, God has led me to conclude that …”

Provide a setting for people to ask questions and challenge the views presented in the sermon.
Following worship, offer a session for participants to ask questions and express their frustration or disagreement. Such venues can facilitate greater understanding and allow people to have an outlet to state their views.

Our faith is meant to inform and shape how we approach complex moral issues. It is the role of pastors to teach and model for their congregants how to think theologically about these issues and how to do so with respect, humility and love. Controversial concerns can be addressed in a variety of venues. When approaching them through preaching, a pastor can increase the likelihood of positively influencing congregants and creating healthy and mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

—Adapted from Preaching Controversial Issues in Ministry Matters and originally from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press.